This is the first article in a two-part series about alleged exploitation of Filipino migrant workers.
Hong Kong, China – The sizzling of chicken adobo – a sweet and savoury Filipino dish – fills the air of a high-rise apartment in Doha.
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It is Sunday, Andrea’s only day off, and she is preparing dinner before another long work week begins.
After more than five years in the Qatari capital, Andrea* has long been tired of her sales job and living conditions in the city, where she shares a flat with three fellow Filipinos.
So when a friend moved to Poland for work last year, Andrea seized the chance to apply with a recruitment agency that promotes mostly factory jobs in the European country.
But after transferring about 2,500 euros (US$2,700) to agents, she is yet to receive her plane ticket.
“I am so stressed because of the big amount of money I already paid,” she told Al Jazeera. “I keep thinking how I can get [it] back.”
Andrea is not alone.
Al Jazeera interviewed 10 Filipino workers and saw written statements from 20 others who claim they were promised jobs in Poland that never materialised, after falling prey to a network of agencies and individual agents working together across multiple countries.
Despite having paid thousands of dollars in fees, they fear they won’t ever reach the European country.
Andrea said she was told her application would be completed in about six months and cost 3,500 euros ($3,820). But the last she heard from her Poland-based agency was that she needed to pay an additional 500 euros ($550) because her work permit had expired while she was waiting for a visa appointment with the Polish embassy.
“They are asking [for] just money and not processing the applications properly,” Andrea said.
Stronger rights, higher salaries
Filipino workers, both in the Philippines and in popular migrant worker destinations such as Qatar and Hong Kong, are being drawn to Poland through a mixture of word of mouth and social media accounts promoting jobs.
For many, the prospect of living and working in Europe seems like a dream come true.
In the Philippines, millions have struggled with soaring inflation and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, while many migrant workers in Gulf countries and elsewhere in Asia face low salaries, poor conditions and meagre protections.
“Here in Qatar, even if I work for 50 years, I won’t be able to become a permanent resident,” Andrea said.
Andrea doesn’t believe she would ever be allowed to bring her family from the Philippines to Qatar, which in 2018 became the first Gulf country to start granting foreign residents permanent residency, no matter how hard she works or how long she stays.
Instead, she sees a factory job in Poland as a ticket to greater opportunities for her and her family.
Filipino workers in three different locations – Qatar, the Philippines and Hong Kong – told Al Jazeera they were led to believe they would find higher salaries in Poland, although they were rarely informed would also face significantly higher taxes.
Other touted perks include the chance to bring one’s family to Poland, despite that not being a straightforward process for low-income workers, and access to other European countries.
The number of Filipino workers in Poland has grown rapidly in recent years.
Poland issued 22,557 work visas to Filipinos in 2022, compared to just 2,057 in 2018, according to data from the Polish Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Policy.
Between 2015 and 2022, Filipinos were among the top five fastest-growing groups to enrol in the country’s social insurance program.
A spokesman for Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “the need for Filipino workers in Poland is a combination of a number of factors related to the dynamic growth of the Polish economy in recent years as well as demographic challenges”.
According to migrant workers and labour experts, unscrupulous agents are taking advantage of the country’s growing allure.
Most workers said they were asked to make payments in three instalments.
The total amounts varied from about $3,500 to $5,000, well above the legal maximum amount in the Philippines. Poland prohibits employment agencies from charging placement fees outright.
Workers also reported hidden charges, a lack of regular updates, and sometimes even verbal intimidation from agents.
Victoria* has lost all hope of a future in Europe.
After her food business went bankrupt in the Philippines, she felt she had no option but to leave her home country.
Then, last year, Victoria found the Facebook page of an agency that posted videos and photos of Filipino workers who had taken jobs in Poland.
“They encouraged me to work there,” she told Al Jazeera, recalling the first online exchanges with agents.
Victoria said that Poland’s lack of language restrictions and the prospect of becoming a permanent resident were major draws.
“I want [my son] to be a doctor. That’s why I want to go to Poland,” she said.
Victoria said she sent about 162,000 Philippine pesos ($2,880) via Western Union to recruiters with a Poland-based agency.
But then they requested an additional 1,500 euros ($1,635) as an “assurance fee” – a payment supposedly intended to dissuade workers from abandoning their job in Poland, which is often solicited on the understanding it will be refunded after six months to a year.
Victoria, a single mother who remortgaged her house and borrowed money from an acquaintance to cover her application, couldn’t afford the payment.
She said she was mocked by the recruitment firm after sharing her dire financial situation and told there were no refunds.
“Every day, I cannot sleep,” Victoria said, calling for workers to be compensated and agents “to be punished”.
Victoria filed complaints with Filipino authorities against the Polish agency. To date, no one has been punished and she has not received a refund or compensation.
To repay her debts and support her son, Victoria has since taken a job as a domestic worker in a Gulf country.
‘Many victims do not come forward’
Al Jazeera saw Western Union and MoneyGram payments along with several bank transfers that were sent to the individual accounts of Poland-based agents.
Some of those accounts were based overseas. The workers were not provided with official receipts.
Others said they made payments in cash to local agencies in Hong Kong, in some cases receiving a paper receipt with the name of an agency that does not hold a licence in the city.
Paras Kalura, operations manager at Migrasia, a Hong Kong-based social enterprise that has investigated complaints from migrant workers in the city, told Al Jazeera that his team was aware of the network, which has grown over time “by adding new recruiters and agents” in different locations.
But its scope is likely to be much larger than it appears, Kalura said, because “many victims… do not come forward, hoping for a future deployment to Europe”.
Although excessive recruitment fees have been an issue for Filipino workers going to various destinations for a long time, Kalura said the amounts charged by this network were “notably higher” compared to other cases his team encountered.
Under Philippine law, it’s illegal to directly recruit Filipino workers while they are working outside of their home country.
An overseas worker’s placement fee should also not exceed the equivalent of one month’s salary, which must be specified in a contract approved by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, and it can only be collected after all paperwork has been completed.
For domestic workers and seafarers, fees are prohibited.
The Philippines’ labour attache in Prague, Llewelyn Perez, said the average monthly wage of a Filipino factory worker in Poland was about 4,200 zlotys ($1,050).
Perez, who is in charge of supporting workers in six European countries including Poland, said she received an initial set of 15 complaints from Filipino workers in Hong Kong against a Poland-based agency named CIS Group Manpower.
Filipino authorities in Hong Kong said that as of November the complaints against CIS Group Manpower and a local agency connected with the agency had risen to 24.
“I made some recommendations to the Department of Migrant Workers with respect to the Facebook page that is being maintained” by the agency, Perez told Al Jazeera.
Over more than six months, Al Jazeera monitored several social media accounts recruiting for jobs in Poland, finding that Facebook and TikTok accounts with thousands of followers would be shut down only to reemerge soon after under a different name.
Perez said that she recommended that authorities conduct an investigation, which could result in agencies being blacklisted by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration.
CIS Group Manpower and its owner Imran Mehmood have been on the Philippines Department of Migrant Workers’ temporary watchlist for employers since May 2022.
Businesses included on the watchlist, which serves as a caution to prospective employees, are not allowed to recruit Filipino workers unless they secure clearance from the Department of Migrant Workers.
Perez said she was aware of other unaccredited agencies recruiting Filipinos to work in Poland, but CIS Group Manpower, as of June, had the most complaints from workers who had paid fees but not reached the country.
Juliusz Gluski-Schimmer, a spokesman for Poland’s Chief Labour Inspectorate, told Al Jazeera in November that it had carried out two inspections of CIS Group Manpower.
After “shortcomings” were identified, the inspectorate issued an “improvement notice” with “four motions” that aimed “at ensuring compliance with the provisions in the future,” Gluski-Schimmer said.
The recommendations were focused on “the legality of employment of foreigners”, including the obligation to offer a written contract and provide a translation “into a language understood by the foreigner.”
‘We follow Polish law’
The owner of CIS Group Manpower, Mehmood, denied any wrongdoing by him or his agency, which has been licensed in the country since 2020, and said he had cooperated with the Labour Inspectorate by providing it with all documents it requested last year.
“We follow the Polish law,” he told Al Jazeera.
Mehmood said his agency doesn’t charge anything to process workers’ visas or find them a job, but that nonrefundable “consultancy fees” are charged to support workers with various procedures.
He said he has successfully placed dozens of Filipino workers and that those complaining about protracted applications can seek clarification from his agency.
He also noted that each case is different and that the process is not fully under its control as visa applications fall under the remit of the Polish authorities.
“We are doing our best to help people and bring them to Poland,” he said.
Mehmood, who accused some workers of lying, said his agency has been unfairly targeted.
“We give contracts and receipts when we receive the money in the company account,” he said, alleging that some of his former employees took applicants’ money.
Mehmood said that agencies in Poland have faced problems because Filipino workers often disappear upon arrival in the country, instead of taking the jobs they had agreed to.
Two of Mehmood’s former employees, who requested anonymity, denied stealing any money. They claimed agents had been instructed to overcharge workers and collect fees via their personal bank accounts.
Although Mehmood confirmed that his agency has worked together with other agencies in places such as Hong Kong, he did not disclose their specific financial agreements and said he could not take responsibility for what they charge to their clients.
Gluski-Schimmer, the spokesman for Poland’s Labour Inspectorate, said the recruitment of migrant workers from non-European countries by Polish employment agencies collaborating with foreign entities often involves “complicated recruitment processes” that can be “impossible to verify.”
“Such business mechanisms may serve to circumvent the provisions of the applicable law,” Gluski-Schimmer said.
They may also exploit “certain loopholes”, which can lead to “abuses” against migrant workers, he said.
However, Gluski-Schimmer said that introducing restrictions on Polish agencies working with entities based overseas is not on the table, as it would not be possible to check “whether they are complied with”.
He said migrant workers should be “cautious when dealing with companies providing labour intermediation services”.
A spokesman for the police in Poland would not confirm or deny if the agencies or agents accused of wrongdoing by workers were under investigation.
Meanwhile, in Qatar, Andrea’s mind runs in circles. She keeps thinking about how much her application money could have helped her family back home.
“It’s a big regret,” she said.
Still, Andrea is holding on to the hope that her application will eventually be finalised and she will one day get a job in Poland.
“If there is a chance to live in Europe, I will go and bring my mother there,” she said.
This article was supported with funding from Journalismfund.eu. *Names have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.